Beyond the Book: Background information when reading America America

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America America

A Novel

by Ethan Canin

America America by Ethan Canin
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  • First Published:
    Jun 2008, 480 pages
    Paperback:
    May 2009, 480 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Amy Reading

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Print Review

The 1972 Democratic Nomination
Senator Henry Bonwiller, the presidential candidate to whom Liam Metarey acts as closest advisor, is fictional, but the rest of the details of the 1972 Democratic nomination battle are true.

The field was crowded with men—and two women—vying to challenge President Nixon's re-election effort. Nixon was seen as vulnerable because of the abysmal state of the Vietnam War. Senator Ed Muskie from Maine was the party establishment's choice, but his campaign fizzled when a supposedly forged letter to the Manchester Union Leader claimed that he was prejudiced against Americans of French-Canadian descent. Muskie refuted the charges in what has since become known as "the crying speech." Several news outlets reported that he broke down in tears during the speech. Muskie denied that he wept, but the damage to his persona was done. This incident appears in America America as the opening for Senator Bonwiller to steal his party's affections. In real life, Senator George McGovern from South Dakota captured the momentum and went on to win the nomination on the basis of a largely grassroots base of support.

The one historical figure notably absent from Canin's account of the election season is Ted Kennedy. He was largely perceived to be the favorite of the Democratic party, but decided not to run after the notorious Chappaquiddick incident. In 1969, Kennedy and a former campaign aide for Robert F. Kennedy, Mary Jo Kopechne, left a party on Chappaquiddick, a small island near Martha's Vineyard. The next morning, Kopechne's body was found in Kennedy's car, submerged in the harbor. Kennedy himself had continued on to his hotel room and behaved as if nothing was amiss. He later claimed that he had been overwhelmed when he escaped the car accident but could not save Kopechne, and he plead guilty to the charge of leaving the scene of an accident after causing an injury. Kennedy does not appear in America America because Bonwiller shares broad similarities with him. Draw what conclusions you'd like from the fact that Bonwiller has an affair with a young woman named JoEllen Charney.

America America unfolds as close to history as possible; Canin has been incredibly careful to fold his fictional characters into real life as seamlessly as he could. Thus the novel is not a counter-factual, like Philip Roth's The Plot Against America, which imagines what history would have been like had one event occurred differently. It is closer to the movie "Forrest Gump" which inserts a fictional Everyman into the highest reaches of power, but only as a witness and not as an actor who might change events.

This article was originally published in August 2008, and has been updated for the May 2009 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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